Midnight approached, and the white van sat like a Trojan Horse. Three men in thick, black vests waited inside. The heavy June air of Northern Virginia was still, plucked gently by a chorus of crickets and the faint whir of cars drifting down a nearby highway. The men seemed hesitant to disturb the peace. Perhaps they knew they were being watched.
Among the wary onlookers was Kenec, a teenager observing from his family’s three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. He knew it was serious because he was not the only one watching. He looked at the building across the street and counted six windows like his — shuttered blinds cracked open slightly, lights off.
Kenec, 18, had heard of ICE agents visiting his neighborhood — a heavily Latino apartment complex in Annandale, about 15 miles outside Washington D.C. — but this was his first time seeing them. He watched them exit the van and stride toward the building across the street, about 80 yards away from his vantage point. A resident answered the door, and they spoke for a couple of minutes. Then Kenec’s mother chided him to get away from the window.
Kenec’s Honduran parents are undocumented. His mother — we’ll call her Valeria — remembered the last time she saw ICE agents outside their apartment. It was about 6:30 a.m. on a freezing January day in 2018. Valeria, 44, was getting ready for her job as a housekeeper and preparing breakfast for her husband, a carpenter. Something caught her eye in the kitchen window, and then she saw them: white vans, black suburbans, men in thick, black vests walking with purpose.
Panic flooded her mind. Kenec was only 17. How was a minor supposed to take care of Leandro, his 6-year-old brother with autism? Kenec would need to drop out of school. Get another job. Quit soccer. Forget about college.
Her husband scrambled to their neighbors’ door and issued a muffled warning.
“Es inmigración! Es inmigración!”
The agents didn’t come to their door. Valeria didn’t see them take anyone. A neighbor later told her they took someone from down the street, but she couldn’t be sure. She just knew she no longer felt safe. Anywhere.
“I had never felt that type of fear in my 20 years of being here,” she said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was established in 2002 as part of the Homeland Security Act, a sweeping political reorganization following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Among its goals was to work toward “a 100% rate of removal for all removable aliens,” according to the legislative document.
Some immigration advocacy groups labeled former President Barack Obama the “deporter in chief.” It’s worth noting, however, that the Obama administration deported far fewer immigrants than the administrations of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, mostly due to a steady decline in illegal border crossings over the past two decades. Moreover, Obama prioritized deporting recent arrivals and people with serious criminal convictions, so well-established immigrant families without significant criminal records could be reasonably sure they were safe from deportation.
Not so under the Trump administration. President Trump overturned Obama’s enforcement policies during his first week in office, repeating over and over that he wanted to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible. His administration still has not reached Obama’s deportation numbers, though you wouldn’t know it from the way he talks about the issue.
And therein lies the problem. Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric hasn’t just embedded fear into immigrant communities around the country — it’s also dredged up deeply ingrained prejudices that expose America’s moral hypocrisy, revealing a nation eager to proclaim “freedom and justice for all” while chanting “Send her back!” More than any single policy measure — many of which have been stymied by legal and congressional hurdles — it’s Trump’s words that threaten livelihoods.
Once a beacon of liberty, the United States has embraced a much different role on the global stage: the bratty, rich bully who pummels less fortunate kids and can’t spell “coffee.”
Out of all Trump’s tweets about immigration, perhaps his vilest was spewed on June 19, 2018.
“Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The tweet distilled Trump’s worst impulses into 43 words. He was sowing division, stoking fear, framing a serious issue as a game to win instead of a problem to solve, conflating undocumented immigrants with violent gang members, and, most appalling of all, likening immigrants to vermin, a chilling parallel to the language used in Nazi-Germany’s 1940 propaganda film, “The Eternal Jew.”
A recent USA Today analysis of the 64 rallies Trump has held since 2017 found that he used the words “predator,” “invasion,” “alien,” “killer,” “criminal,” and “animal” more than 500 times while discussing immigration. Trump’s campaign, according to their analysis of Facebook political advertising data, funded the publication of over 2,000 political ads that implored users to, for instance, “STOP THE INVASION.”
If Trump is the cook whipping up all this vitriolic slop, Fox News is the orderly spoon-feeding it to the masses. On his prime-time Fox News show last year, Tucker Carlson disparaged thousands of asylum-seeking Central Americans — many of them fleeing crushing violence — as “border jumpers,” not refugees, before asking, “Will anyone in power do anything to protect America this time, or will leaders sit passively back as the invasion continues?” In November, Ann Coulter guested on Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show and offered up her sobering suggestion for easing the flow of migrants: “You can shoot invaders.”
Minutes before slaughtering 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, a gunman posted a hate-laden screed on 8chan explaining, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Similarly, the man who gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last October had previously denigrated the members of a Jewish nonprofit organization as “invaders.”
Of course, those two may have wound up killing people regardless of political circumstance. But does that really give Trump a pass for poisoning our public discourse? Should Trump supporters, in their eagerness to back a candidate who puts “America first,” feel virtuous if that candidate willfully desecrates core American values such as the fair and equal treatment of all people?
Then again, Trump’s most delirious support doesn’t stem from a rational thought process so much as a gut feeling. To attend a Trump rally is to attend a sporting event — people go to cheer on their guy, to boo the opponent, and, sometimes, to see someone get their ass kicked. More than anything, they go to let their darkest impulses — the nativist ones they’ve kept hidden for so many years, the ones rooted in humans’ tribalistic instincts — feel justified amid the like-minded frenzy. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, wrapped in his fourth grade-level vocabulary and blatant disregard for facts, stunts rational thought and inflames an emotional response, no matter how ugly it may be.
Take Dianne Cook, for example. Cook, a member of a small-town Virginia church that caught heat earlier this summer for a sign that read “AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT,” said Trump was right to criticize the four Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad.” But rather than offer a coherent rationale for her opinion, she said this to NPR:
“Where’d their parents come from? Are they Americans? Just because she was born in America does not make her American.”
“Doesn’t it?” the reporter asked. “Doesn’t it legally, though, under the Constitution?”
“Under the Constitution, yes. But I don’t know how to express that, to make you understand that I wish she, I wish they, well — I don’t want any Muslims in America.”
Further north in Virginia, Kenec’s culturally diverse soccer team hears stuff like that frequently. According to the players, predominantly white opponents sometimes call them spics and Mexicans, typically when they’re frustrated. In years past, such racism only arose once or twice against “teams from down south,” but these days they occasionally hear it in Northern Virginia, too.
“A lot of teams say Trump this, Trump that, oh you’re Mexican, get out of here, and I try to calm myself and my players even though I feel that anger,” said Ronald, whose parents are from El Salvador. “I want to do something, but you just, you know, play the game.”
One of my favorite presidential quotes came from a Republican. Here was Ronald Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address, evoking John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” image to describe his American vision:
“But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still… And she’s a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through darkness, toward home.”
Thirty years after that speech, Valeria climbs into the driver’s seat of her car and shuts the door. Before starting the engine, she clasps her hands, closes her eyes, and bows her head. Then she says a prayer that trails into a mumble, the same one she says every time she gets behind the wheel.
“Padre, le pido la seguridad y la salud para poder regresar al mismo estado en lo cual nosotros fuimos. Por favor, garantízame otro día para ver a mis hijos y a mi familia.”
“Father, I ask for the safety and health to be able to return in the same condition from which we came. Please, promise me another day so that I can see my kids and my family.”
Kenec used to make fun of his mom for the routine when she started doing it last year, but now he understands. Less than three years from now, he will turn 21, thus making him eligible to apply for his parents’ permanent residence. Maybe someday his mom will feel like she belongs. His neighbors, too.
But until then, they are targets.
“I’m scared for them,” Kenec said, “and yet I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of fear that they may be living in.”